“I lost a close friend from college,” I softy say, while going through the life-altering events of January 2006 that are emblazoned in my memory and on my skin. The spanning tattoo across my left wrist, visible only when I do not wear a watch, reminds me of him. Reminds me of his unfortunate death, while vacationing with his partner in Mexico. Reminds me of the surreal emails and phone calls that followed. Remind me.
He was…that verb tense feels alien yet so real…an activist, active person, energy personified. As the executive director of Youth in Action, he taught leadership and life skills to disadvantaged students throughout Providence, a city where he spent the majority of his life. He was an openly gay man, and wrote a curriculum about HIV prevention that is still being used to this today. He was passionate about theater, working on numerous shows at Rites and Reasons, the oldest operating African-American theater in New England. In fact, this is where we met, back in 2001. I always wanted to be a actor, never auditioned for any theater roles in high school. I always lied to myself that the shows occurred during basketball season; I believed myself. When I got to college, I heeded to the mantra that college was a time to (re)define oneself. I lied to myself again, making up some random excuse that I can no longer recollect.
As we walk past the theater, I notice my good friend from high school smoking a cigarette, huddled with others. I waltz over to say what’s up…really I want my then-freshman friends, whom I was with, to see that I knew an older student. I have clout, I thought to myself. Not at all, though. We exchange the traditional salutations and elaborate handshakes. My friend then introduces me to his crew. I introduce myself.
Dap. Head nod. What up? Repeat.
A skinny male Puerto Rican with a Latino inflected New England accent randomly asks me if I want to act. Makes sense, I guess. We are right outside the theater. All eyes on me, I shrug. “Never thought about it before,” I lie. Peer pressure is real.
He continues and informs that they are auditioning for a few more extras in an upcoming student-written play. He convinces me that it won’t take up too much of my time. He lied. If not for him asking me if I was interested in acting, I would have never had the opportunity to satisfy that acting bug that gnawed at my insides since a young boy.
I never shared that story before now. More importantly, I never got a chance to tell him thanks.
The other day, I overheard a few of my English colleagues discussing this poetry newsletter that they both received, and occasionally used to construct a last minute poetry lesson with their students. Feeling under-read and under-exposed, I asked for the website and joined its emailing list. The following day, the following poem arrived in my mailbox at 1:43am. From the moment, I read the poem, I cannot stop thinking about him. No longer is his memory only present when I discuss my tattoo, but now, it is ever-present.
My Dead Friends
by Marie Howe
I have begun,
when I’m weary and can’t decide an answer to a bewildering question
to ask my dead friends for their opinion
and the answer is often immediate and clear.
Should I take the job? Move to the city? Should I try to conceive a child
in my middle age?
They stand in unison shaking their heads and smiling—whatever leads
to joy, they always answer,
to more life and less worry. I look into the vase where Billy’s ashes were —
it’s green in there, a green vase,
and I ask Billy if I should return the difficult phone call, and he says, yes.
Billy’s already gone through the frightening door,
whatever he says I’ll do.
“My Dead Friends” by Marie Howe, from What the Living Do. ©
Marie Howe is correct–the dead will undoubtedly advice one to seek joy, life, and less worry.
Thankfully, my dead friend did it from me while he was still alive.
Rest in Peace and Power.